Throughout July, the IASPM-US website will be previewing articles from “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on Television,” the upcoming special issue of The Journal of Popular Music Studies.
In 1968, Ward Sylvester, a Screen-Gems Vice-President, hired British producer and television rock pioneer Jack Good to produce the first of what was to be three television specials starring the Monkees after their television series ended. The special, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, credits Good as Creator as well as Writer and Producer. The Monkees, it seems, had very little to do with the script, such as it was. 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was not the group’s statement of authenticity and renunciation of their pre-fab origins, but Jack Good’s public self-immolation and display of guilt for his role in facilitating and perpetuating the brainwashing capabilities of popular culture.[1. Good produced two other specials for American television, both reflecting his increasing eccentric worldview. Switched-On Symphony, featuring Yehudi Menuhin and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, reframed classical music for the rock generation in 1970. Mary’s Incredible Dream, produced in 1976, narrated the biblical history of the world as dreamed by Mary Tyler Moore, with appearances by Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops, Manhattan Transfer, and Bobby Vereen as a dancing Devil]
Good had expressed his misgivings earlier in an 1967 article in the Los Angeles Times, contending that the so-called freedom of the hippie generation led to an almost unprecedented collective lack of imagination. With typical erudition and overstatement, Good decried that, “We might legitimately have hoped that this unparalleled freedom would prove a fertile soil from which a limitless variety of exotic and eccentric specimens might proliferate; but ironically and tragically, there has never been such a rigid conformity, such a powerful effacement of individuality, such a blank automatism in the history of art since the civilization of ancient Egypt.” He was particularly aghast at what had happened to rock’n’roll: the “invigorating spectacle of those giant individualists Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry rocking and rolling and cocking a snook at the whole world” was now replaced by “one vast, hairy, paisley-patterned uniformity” (Good, “Creativity”).” 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee demonstrated his thesis throughout the program but particularly in the introduction and the 12-minute conclusion.
The program opened not with images of romping Monkees but one of a mouth opening and closing behind a glass affixed to an ornate pendant, dangling from the neck of a female body. Theatrically and slowly, in a deep male voice, the mouth intones, “Who are you?” The camera pans up the body to frame British vocalist Julie Driscoll’s face in close-up. Her hair is closely cropped and her eye-makeup is clown-like. Driscoll stares into the camera and slowly screeches, “I am Woman.” She then takes a bite out of an apple, which is quickly grabbed from her hand by the Devil, played by her musical partner Brian Auger, purple fingernails capping the ends of his long fingers. Auger, dressed in an orange harlequin-pattered gown, sits at a psychedelically-painted Hammond Organ from where he delivers a short exposition of the program’s themes:
“We have the knowledge, evil though it be, to twist the mind to any lunacy we wish. Through this electro-pod machine [the organ], I’ll demonstrate exactly what I mean. We’ll take the means of mass communication, use them for commercial exploitation, create a new four-part phenomena, force implants of talent little or not, and through the latest fad of rock and roll, conduct experiments in mind-control on an unsuspecting public …I’ll brainwash them and they’ll brainwash…THE WORLD”(33 1/3).
Auger’s Devil then conjures up the four group members, places each in a plastic tube, and when they try to assert their individuality, brainwashes them into acquiescent Monkees whose mild pop lacks the power and danger of artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino – all recruited by Good for a massive production number featuring stacked grand pianos. By the program’s conclusion, Good’s trademarked carefully choreographed performances on minimalist sets give way to a psychedelic soundstage strewed with garbage and overrun with 100 aimless hippies bussed in from the Sunset Strip, a visual representation of Good’s assertion in his Los Angeles Times article. Yet through it all, the music, now dissonant and punctuated by Julie Driscoll’s atonal howls, is still one with the visuals, horribly warped by what was, in Good’s admission, an overuse of special effects.
Good may have attempted to repudiate his entire television career and legacy by blasting his signature style to bits in the painfully drawn-out conclusion of 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, but his contributions to rock and roll performance styles, as well as the overall impact and reception of the music, were permanently established in the genre’s bloodstream.
Norma Coates is Associate Professor with a joint appointment in the Don Wright Faculty of Music and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her publications include articles about gender and popular music, sound studies, and the transmedia engagements with music. She is a past officer of IASPM-US, and active in the Sound Studies Special Interest Group of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.